I had a wide-ranging, academic and challenging theological education and believe I
came out of theological college well equipped to deal with ministry in the world of the
70’s and 80’s. I did not take long for that bubble to be popped. World outside of the
library and classrooms was nothing like the one subjected to our debates and analysis.
Then I headed off to PNG and my theological bubble was destroyed.
My first parish was Ningil in the remote West Sepik Province. It had been two parishes
and consisted of five long ridges, some up into the Torricelli mountains and others down
into the hot and mosquito ridden kunai plains. Life was focused on patrolling these
ridges and spending time with the small village communities.
One priest - dozens of eucharistic communities
Perhaps the most surprising element of those early years was discovering thriving
Christian communities in some of the remotest reaches of the parish. They would gather
every morning and every night to say their prayers. The bell would be rung (sometimes
just an old WW2 deactivated bomb belted with a piece of iron), people would rise, have
their wash down in the river and then make their way to the little village church. A
local village prayer leader or catechist would lead the prayers, often with hymns being
sung, and readings from the Bible according to the lectionary, confession of sins and
prayers for the people. Then the people would head off to their work for the day.
That was an impressive discovery for a young priest. I was young, fit and loved the
whole idea of patrolling, living in the villages and exploring such a rugged, beautiful
and dangerous part of the country – dangerous because of illness and accidents, not
from the people. I spent more time in the bush than I did in my mission house.
Despite all of that patrolling, most villages were reached twice a year – if things went
well... rivers we not too flooded, malaria and other exotic illnesses did not set the patrol
back for a couple of weeks, monsoons and the like. One of those visits was Easter. I
would go from village to village for nearly two months celebrating Easter in each one
of them. It was the time for baptism and even though I ended up with dozens of Easter
day liturgies, they were wonderful times. The other visit was the “normal” one, where
I would spend two or three days in the village, preaching, teaching, anointing the sick
and encouraging and resourcing the local lay ministry.
Were these genuine eucharistic communities?
In the seminary, we pursued a number of courses on ecclesiology, sacraments and the
Eucharist in particular. One thing was clear from all of these. All authentic Christian
communities (parishes if you like) had to be eucharistic communities or they were not
genuine Christian churches. It is in the Eucharist the Church is at its fullest expression
of the Body of Christ in the world. Eucharist makes the Church. The Eucharist formed
the Church and reminded us as to how it was only by being tied to the Crucifixion of
Jesus, to the Golgotha event could mission thrive. No Eucharist no Church.
My experience of these thriving village church communities made me wonder about the
theology I had been taught. One interesting observation I made when I returned to
Australia for ministry was the way what has a way of life in PNG was becoming a reality
for many communities here, particularly in the more rural areas. Parishes have been
closing over a long period of time as population declined and these faith communities
were finding they could not afford to pay for a priest. The standard conclusion seemed
to be: No priest = No parish. Some of these were forced to combine with other parish
communities. The logic seemed to be that the most important work of a priest was the
celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday. No priest = No Church?
But Church is about place
One feature of Church we seem to have forgotten is the importance of “place”. People
live in communities and these are of immeasurable importance in the more rural areas.
In the smaller towns most people are engaged in local issues. We worry about health,
transport, schooling, unemployment, the problems facing young people, the
environment, loneliness and more. Ask me about Linton, my own little town with a
population of just over six hundred men and women and I can tell you what is going on.
We are unique and while our challenges and difficulties might be reflected across the
Victorian West, they are specific to us. Snake Valley down the road is different and
what works in Linton will not work in the Valley in the same way. They are different
people and we have been doing battle with them on football fields and netball courts for
many, many decades. Is it likely, then, that we could come together to form a “parish”?
Are there better ways in which we can “be Church” outside of the old parish model? Is
it possible to break away from the restrictions and limitations imposed by Canon Law?
A definition of parish?
A definition is important as it nudges us in something of a theological direction. If, for
example, we define it in primarily geographical language, it is the geography that so
easily becomes the dominant feature. There are alternatives. One I find helpful is the
one used by Paul Sparks...a parish refers to all the relationships (including the
land)where the local church lives out its faith together. This still allows for a
geographic component – there is an area large enough for people to live, work, play,
study, etc – but small enough for relationships to foster and thrive between all members.
The word itself is one of those powerful theological concepts that are both nouns and
verbs. They are nouns in that it is the place where day to day relationships are lived
out. You can point to it and say “that is my parish”.
At the same time, it has verbal connotations in that it exists only to bring us towards a
divinely bestowed end. It is the reality drawing us towards God and towards a fuller
collaboration with what God is doing in that place. It is a place with a purpose.
This understanding of “parish” reminds us that there is no such thing as a completely
autonomous individual. We are born dependent and we die in a state of dependence.
There is a very real truth behind the observation of John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
Community, then, is the fundamental reality for human beings in this world and it is
this reality that should be one of the principles guiding our “parish” ministry and
pastoral life. In the definition of parish above, this draws into our arc of responsibility
believers and unbelievers alike, church goers and non-church goers.
Living above place
Paul Sparks speaks of another factor working against thriving faith communities. He
calls this factor “living above place”. He describes this in the following way...the
tendency to develop structures that keep cause and effect relationships far apart in
space and time where we cannot have firsthand experience of them. An example of this
is the way we so often eat food but have no idea from where the food originated and the
long line of people associated with bringing it to our plate. Living above the place
describes this separation and the way it disorients people from reality. We do not know
what is going on down at the farm and so it of no importance to us and this has been the
situation for generations.
The role of the parish is, in part, the breaking down of these separations and bringing
back together the cause and effect relationships. They do this through their
collaborative relationships in their day to day actions within the community. If we
cannot do this within our own parish, then the wider world sees Kingdom living as a
fantasy that can never be fulfilled. Church offers a wonderful world view but the reality
on the ground is something very different. It remains unrealistic.
This is further enhanced in our contemporary technological world. We create a world
of our own that exists online, generally associating with people who think and believe
in the same way we do. We gather in smaller virtual communities where views are
shared. With this online world, if we come across someone we do not like, with whom
we disagree, it is easy enough to delete them or to stop their access. The more this
ethereal world intrudes in our lives, the more we can find ourselves disconnected from
the wider real world.
The neighborhood without the Church
The social psychologist Christena Cleveland has observed this with-drawl of the local
churches from engagement in their wider communities, the more homogeneous it
becomes in thinking, liturgy and priorities...
Today’s churchgoers...tend to shop for churches that express
their individual values and are culturally similar. We often drive
past dozens of churches en-route to our church, the one that
meets our cultural expectations. American society has engaged
in an evangelical spiritual consumerism that some scholars
pejoratively call “Burger King Christianity”.
In case we cannot see how this applies to our own Australian parish communities, let us
ponder how many times we have set in place programs and projects without engaging
first of all with those towards whom this ministry is directed. We have only a notional
relationship with them and yet we feel comfortable in speaking about what they need. I
have used this quote often but that is because it is so true...It is not that we do not care
about the poor, it is just that we Christians do not know them (Shane Claiborne).
It is because we do not know the poor and have a relationship with them, we can distance
ourselves from them by using generalisations...the poor are poor because of their own
laziness...they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they really want to improve
their lives...they are lazy people, sitting back and living on Government monies, all of
which comes from our tax payments...This is living above place in action.
What these people really need, as well as physical support, are strong human
relationships and friendships, communities in which they feel welcomed, loved and
valued. Pouring money into them is but a short-term band-aide at best.
The unity and diversity in the Trinity
The parish communities are called to model their relationships along the lines of the
Trinity. We believe God is three in one. Individual persons but the One undivided God.
The early communities took this understanding seriously, even though it was more than
a century before their thinking would develop into a theology of the Trinity.
Here is one of the better ways of describing this...1 Corinthians 12:12-13... For just
as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though
many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into
one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
The whole of this chapter is worth reading as it develops more fully the whole idea of
unity in diversity and includes his beautiful metaphor of the body for the Church.
To this unity in diversity we need to add a further dimension: the incarnation of Jesus.
When he became man, he became a real, full, genuine man in a specific place and time
in human history. He was born a Jew in the Judaism of that time, a Judaism struggling
to maintain its uniqueness in the face of her all-powerful Roman occupiers. This is the
full meaning of and the Word became flesh and lived among us. The Message bible
probably puts it in the simplest of language... The Word became flesh and blood, and
moved into the neighbourhood. The local must always be a major component of what
shapes us for they are the locus of the actions of God in our neighbourhood.
Here is a further quotation from Shane Clariborne...
The seeds of the Gospel are really small. They are really about
meeting God at dinner tables and in living rooms and in little
towns that may not be known by the rest of the world. But it
seems like that is exactly what happens when God moves into the
neighbourhood in Jesus...It is that which I think we are invited
into is to grow into a neighbourhood, to plant ourselves
somewhere and to get to know people there, and to see the seeds
of the kingdom grow there.
Clariborne is speaking as much about our own parish communities as he is speaking
about our parish in the “neighbourhood”. If the Christian community is unable to offer
a Kingdom model of relationships to “outsiders” it has nothing to offer the world. All
we are left with are things they can find on their own without the Church. Conversion
will happen when Christ’s disciples live in the Spirit rather than in the self. We are
called to model a powerful alternative way of living... I came so they can have real and
eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.
Could it be God is growing the Church but not filling our pews?
During the Corona Virus isolation requirements, I have been re-reading my collection
of books on Church, renewal and mission. Nearly all of them begin with an opening
chapter on the decline in the West. There are pages of statistics showing how things
have gone so vey wrong. There are even dire warnings about what the future holds for
communities already held together by ageing Boomers. It is not a great picture.
However, I cannot help but wonder if we are measuring Church in ways that are
meaningful for us? Our definition of a successful Church would be one where the
building is filled every Sunday with a congregation of all genders, ages and a broad mix
from the local humanity. That means our finances will be in the black and we can do
all of the things we believe we need to be doing. But is that the measure we find in the
New Testament? Could it be we are using the wrong measures? Could it be the
shrinking congregations and our Boomer focus is not talking about failure but an
indication from God it is now time for a new canon, a new measuring stick?
I know from my own tiny community of Linton, people are showing levels of love for
others in the community we would not have ordinarily noticed. We give and receive
phone calls checking on the welfare of others, offer food, shopping services and take
people for medical work. Our community food bank is overflowing, and I know that if
I collapsed today, it would not be long before someone came calling to find out if I was
alright. That is true love of neighbour demanded by God, witnessed to by Christ Jesus.
Few if any of these come to church on Sunday. Sadly, our Bishop is only offering a
single service per month and nothing else during the week so there are not many
opportunities made available for them. And yet they love. Those who are Christians
express their faith and imitate Christ through extending these relationships.
This is the point. Around Australia there are thousands of these kinds of communities
– in rural areas as well as within larger urban regions. Churches might be shrinking and
closing but the deeper we dig into our local communities, the more we will find people
crying out for and building relationships of meaning and purpose. Love is very much at
work through the Christ who has very much come into the neighbourhood. Our fellow
Lintonians may not know it but their love is the love of God in our midst.
Connecting with the Spirit already at work all around us
What builds the local community can also be the way the Spirit is building the Church.
Here we have a food bank, a community garden, transport for the frail elderly, BBQs,
new-home warmings, weddings in a garden, the tiny local school, fire brigade, Men’s
Shed, bartering and a whole lot more. Building bridges and reconciling people one to
another is the norm, just as it is in the Gospels. Are these not the works of the Spirit?
There are many, many things we could list as reasons for the shrinking, almost invisible
numbers of church attendees but that is not the same as saying the Christian way of life
is coming to an end, that the Kingdom is collapsing. Christ is still reigning.
Here is a list of some alternative survey questions we might like to ask as an alternative
to an examination of numbers in the pews (Sparks):
• Are there signs of people sharing life and lover together?
• Are there people seeking ways to build reconciliation and renewal here?
• Are there people concerned about justice with the marginalized and the poor?
• Are there people entering into relational forms of civic and economic life?
• Are there people creating reciprocal relationships of care across the community?
These are signs of the Spirit moving through the local Christian community as well as
among the unbelievers. Both are acting under the guidance of the Spirit in this new era in
human history inaugurated by the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
As Jesus said, those who are not against me are for me.
This is the renewed understanding of ‘parish”, the way the incarnation works in the world
in which we live and move. Thinking in this way allows for more hope and peace for it
reminds us that whatever of our failings, God is still at work in the world. Most of these
people will not find themselves on parish rolls but that does no leave them outside of the
Kingdom. They live the kind of life demanded by Jesus in the Last Judgment scene from
Matthew 25. They fulfil those requirements and will hear the invitation... “Come, you
that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation
of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me
something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave
me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
For reflection and discussion and reflection
...the worship and sacrifice of the faithful, and therefore their corresponding priesthood,
are essentially those of a holy life, an apostolic life of religion, prayer, dedication, charity,
compassion...The offering and priesthood of the faithful are spiritual. But this epithet must
be understood in its biblical sense, and not as equivalent to metaphorical...the priesthood
of the faithful ought much rather be called “spirit-real”...if we keep to the New Testament
and originating texts we have to recognise that the worship and priesthood of the faithful
belong to the order of Christian life...Yves Congar
This distancing of the term “lay” from the common matrix indicates that as one enters into
the Jesus community through the sacrament of initiation...a person is not thereby a lay
person. Baptism-Eucharist is not the sacramental initiation into lay status in the Church.
Rather some new name needs to be developed, one which does not have any of the
implications of kleros/laikos, but rather a name through which the fundamental reality of
Christian discipleship can be expressed. In former theological terminology ...there was
an equation between basic Christian and lay person, but this way of speaking is no longer
viable. Kenan Osborne
The apostolate of the social milieu, that is, the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the
mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which a person lives, is so
much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be properly performed by
The foundation for all mission and ministry is Jesus. Thus, one can only conclude:
(a). Jesus himself was neither clerical nor lay.
(b) Jeus’ mission is itself neither clerical
(c) Jesus’ ministry is itself neither clerical nor lay.
If Jesus’ ministry and mission, the tria munera (teaching, sanctifying and governing,
which correspond to Christ’s threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King) are the basis
of all ecclesial mission and ministry, then both clerical and lay mission and ministry
must find their basis on this Christocentric center. Kenan Osborne
The assembly not only assists in the accomplishment of a ritual performance, its actions
are intentional and meant to affect those who participate...the assembly also exercises
specific roles in the accomplishment of the intention of each of the rites...the assembly’s
action is both self-actualizing...and self-involving. Catherine Vincie
...special and grave circumstances, and concretely in areas which lack priests or
deacons, can temporality be exercised by the lay faithful, with previous juridic faculty
and mandated by competent ecclesiastical authority. Code of Canon Law . A footnote
here is how this was applied to a range of ministries... of the Word, presiding over
liturgical prayers, conferring baptism, distributing Holy Communion, the exposition
and deposition of the Blessed sacrament and assisting at marriage.
...if yesterday’s world was a world wherein priesthood was well defined and pivotal
and ministry of the people was vague and residual, today’s world is just the opposite
(priestly vague and laity more pivotal). William Bausch
Camille Paul sets up the following contrasts and it is worth noting the enormous
differences between the two and their implicatons. Though Roman Catholic, it applies
also to the Anglican situation...Pope Pius X...In the hierarchy alone reside the power
and the authority necessary to move and direct all members of the society to its end. As
for the many, they have no other right than to let themselves be guided and so follow
their pastors in docility...Paul V1...upon all the laity, therefore, rests the noble duty
of working to extend the divine plan of salvation ever increasingly to all people of each
epoch and in every land. Consequently, let every opportunity be given them so that,
according to their abilities and the needs of the times, they may zealously participate in
the saving work of the Church.
The Church derives its being from the missionary God and is created and shaped to
share in the divine mission (mission Dei) the goal of which is the coming of the kingdom
of God. David Bosch writes, “the classical doctrine of the missio Dei as God the Father
sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to
include yet another “movement”: Father Son and Holy Spirit sending the church into
the world”. This is what is found in the Scripture “as the Father has sent me” says
Jesus, “so I send you” (John 20:21).In this way the Christian Church derives its life,
nature, mission and ministry from God. Whatever God is perceived to be like, the
Church, if it is true and faithful, will embody and emulate it. As St Augustine wrote
“the Church does not have a mission. It is the mission”. By this Augustine meant there
is one people, one trinitarian people...that reflects the one God who is lover, beloved
and love itself..one God who is sender, sent and sending. Church thus becomes the
vehicle of God’s mission, itself infilled and impelled by the sender sent and sending one.